The Museum of Art was founded simultaneously with the Rhode Island School of Design in 1877 by a group of women led by Eliza Radeke's mother, Helen Adelia Rowe (Mrs. Jesse) Metcalf. RISD’s stated purpose was to educate artists in drawing, painting, modeling, and design for the benefit of industry and art, and to educate the public so that they could appreciate and support art and design.
The creation of a museum collection was inseparable from these objectives. Both Eliza Radeke and Helen Danforth, as heirs to those aspirations, made extraordinary individual gifts to all departments of the Museum, especially to drawings, prints, ancient art, textiles, American furniture and decorative arts, and European and American painting. Drawings and prints were essential components in the overall educational goals they set, as well as being personal passions for both women. Between them, they presented over 1,300 works on paper to the Museum. In concert with the Museum’s directors and curators and with dealers overseas and at home, these women made truly remarkable contributions to the holdings of 19th century French drawings, but the collection is also decidedly rich in Old Master and American
Although both women had wide-ranging tastes and purchased exceptional drawings of all types, a few broad generalizations may be made about the kinds they sought and favored. Eliza Radeke was inspired by works on paper as germinations of artistic ideas, seeing in them instructive potential. Sketches, including figure studies, animal studies, landscapes, and portraits, all fit this ideal. She often selected a notable subject or exquisite technical example over a well-known artistic name. Helen Danforth's gifts reflect her interest in acquiring works by the most important artists and thereby increasing the prestige of RISD and its Museum. She enhanced the holdings with many finished presentation drawings by the greatest names in the history of art. Both approaches have enriched the collection in innumerable ways.